Rorate Caeli

Evelyn Waugh and "The Bitter Trial" of the Council: What is Old Is New

In reading A Bitter Trial, the collection of letters by Evelyn Waugh and John Cardinal Heenan on the Second Vatican Council, what is striking is how similar our present day is to the tumultuous mid-1960s. In 2011, when the new edition of the new "Roman Missal" was released, it may have seemed as though the Church had recovered from the shocks of the Vatican II and the difficult decades that followed. But events of the last few years-- Traditionis Custodes, attempting to suppress the Traditional Latin Mass, and the Synod on Synodality, with its hints of sweeping changes to Catholic doctrine-- mean that our era is eerily similar to the days of 1962-1966. "The Church has survived many dark periods. It is our misfortunate to live in one of them," wrote Waugh just before his death. 

Waugh was one of many eminent writers who joined the Catholic Church in the 1930s. "By the 1930s the rising tide of converts to Catholicism had become a torrent. Throughout that decade there were some twelve thousand converts a year in England alone." Indeed, "[i]t is a singularly intriguing fact that the preconciliar Church was so effective in evangelizing modern culture, whereas the number of converts to the faith seemed to diminish in the sixties and seventies in direct proportion to the presence of the much-vaunted aggiornamento.'"

But those converts were cruelly cast adrift by the Council. As Cardinal Heenan wrote to Waugh in 1962, "the real difficulty (I think) is that Continentals are twisting themselves inside out to make us look as like as possible to the Protestants."  And as Cardinal Heenan wrote in a 1965 pastoral letter, "Converts complain, not without bitterness, that what attracted them to the Church is now being taken away."

Waugh saw immediately that the liturgical changes would not bring new people into the Church: "Any idea that it will attract Protestants may be dismissed. The Anglicans have an elegant and comprehensible form of service. All they lack is valid orders to make it preferable"  And writing to the editor of The Tablet in 1965, he states: "You express a special solicitude for elderly converts. You may well do so for we are likely to be the last converts of the century, or longer." Waugh notes incisively how empty the reformers' concept of "active participation" was. "'Participate' does not mean to make a row, as the Germans suppose.  One participates in a work of art when one studies it with reverence and understanding."

Waugh is devastated first by the changes to Holy Week in the mid-1950s, which deprived it of its rich and immersive quality and the ability to experience it as an uninterrupted whole. Even more so, he is scandalized by the changes to the Mass unveiled throughout the mid-1960s-- its translation into English, the addition of "and with you," and the cessation of piously kneeling at the "incarnatus est" during the Credo. He deplores the notion of Mass as a community meeting, stripped of any sacrificial quality, with the priest as a mere presider and moderator. Waugh campaigns against the changes in letters to The Tablet. He receives a warm response from both laymen and clergy-- "literally every day I get letters from distressed laymen who think I might speak for them." For his part, Cardinal Heenan makes a point of retaining a Mass entirely in Latin-- showing that pastoral sensitivity to the liturgical changes dated from the earliest moments they were introduced, and were not a strange outreach program of Benedict XVI or John Paul II.

Eventually, however, Waugh loses hope. "Protests avail nothing. A minority of cranks, for and against the innovations, mind enormously. I don't think the main congregation cares a hoot." Just before his death, he writes, "I now cling to the faith doggedly, without joy. Church-going is a pure duty parade. The Vatican Council has knocked the guts out of me." Waugh and Cardinal Heenan worry too of "suggested changes in faith and morals" arising from the Council, with Cardinal Heenan having to reassure his flock-- in words that echo today--  that "the Church has no power to alter the law of God. What is wrong and immoral can never become right. Nor can any doctrine of the Church be changed."

As in Waugh's day, there is a temptation for Catholics today to lose hope that the attempt to "rob the Church of poetry, mystery and dignity" will never end. But there is indeed reason to hope. The first is that Waugh's letters are even more relevant today than they were when he wrote them. Waugh was not a crank or reactionary, as he might have supposed, for caring. Instead, he expressed concerns that have proved timeless.

The next is that, unlike in the mid-1960s, there is no longer a default assumption of Catholics that whatever the Pope or the bishops do is the work of the Holy Spirit. Waugh assumed that Catholics would simply go along with the changes-- but they did not. Five years after Waugh's death, Paul VI granted the Agatha Christie indult to all Catholics in England, allowing the celebration of the traditional liturgy. Today, beautiful pre-1955 Holy Week liturgies proliferate around the world. Against all efforts to stamp it out, traditional Catholicism has survived and thrived. It will continue to do so.